If there’s one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has made us realize is how much we love — and miss — live sports. The worldwide health crisis brought nearly all sports to an immediate halt, leaving us with only reruns of past championships and one heckuva documentary on Michael Jordan to binge on until sporting activity resumes.

So, it was welcomed news when NBA officials announced a tentative plan to return play this July at Walt Disney World in Orlando. While guidelines on how to keep players and officials healthy during the 22-team season and playoff were recently issued, it’s still unclear if play will officially resume at all this year. Several high-profile players have recently expressed concern about returning to work, arguing it would distract from the growing Black Lives Matter movement.

Whether the season returns this year or not, we partnered with Mindnet Analytics to determine which NBA fan base is most excited about their team and the league returning to action. Here’s what we found.

The results

While Lebron James and the L.A. Lakers were expected to lead the pack, the Chicago Bulls — one of the eight teams actually not invited to continue playing this season — came out on top when it comes to the fan base most interested about their team returning.

The Lakers came in at No. 2 (93.3) followed by the Golden State Warriors (53.3), Miami Heat (53.3) and Boston Celtics (46.7).

Methodology

It was no easy task. First, we extracted Google search frequencies in the U.S. over the last three months for each of the 30 NBA teams, based on the phrases, “When is [team name] playing again?” And “When is [team name] coming back?” We then assessed the geographic variation of team interest to ensure that a bulk of the search results were coming from their expected locations. Most searches for “When is Detroit Pistons playing again,” for instance, came from Michigan.

Of course, there are some expected anomalies. The L.A. Lakers are a huge national brand with interest that expands well beyond California. Same goes for the Chicago Bulls. Still, the home states of those teams remained consistent.

And then to find the overall interest in the return of each team, we took the median daily search interest over time for each team and re-scaled values so that the maximum value is 100. (Medians were used to prevent large outlier values that could potentially influence the outcome.)

 

Analysis

When it comes to national brands in the NBA, the Bulls certainly are no slouch. But it has been more than a decade since the team has even made the playoffs.

We anticipate a large reason for such a strong response by Bulls fans is the ESPN and Netflix documentary “The Last Dance,” which chronicles the Michael Jordan Bulls teams of the 1990s chasing after a sixth championship. The 10-episode documentary series averaged nearly 6 million viewers across premieres of its first six episodes. An even larger audience likely consumed the documentary via streaming and re-airs.

The Golden State Warriors — another team not making the trip to Orlando if plans proceed — also made the top 5, likely due to the team’s recent string of championships. The exit of Kevin Durant in addition to injuries to all-stars Steph Curry and Klay Thompson left the Warriors as one of the worst teams in the league before the pandemic hit.

The New York Knicks also cracked the top 10, despite not having made the playoffs since 2013.

Perhaps most interesting is the Indiana Pacers — a franchise that is one of the 22 teams pegged to play in Orlando. The team has a rich history in the NBA and plays in a state with a deep love for basketball, yet came in dead last in our analysis.

 

Broader interest in the NBA returning

As we compiled this data, we understood not all states have an NBA team to call their own, so it would be important to also compile a broader geographic search based on the following phrases:

  • “When is the NBA coming back?”
  • “When does NBA start again?”
  • “When is basketball starting again?”
  • “When is NBA starting again?”
  • “When will NBA come back?”

The same timeframe for search frequencies applied to this analysis, and then we summed those frequencies across keywords for each state. Results were again rescaled so the highest value equaled 100.

The results were certainly interesting.

Utah — home of the Utah Jazz — led the pack. It’s important to note these Google results were filtered to sports specifically, so there was no confusion over searches about jazz music.

Coming in second place was the state of Connecticut (82.9) followed by North Carolina (45.8); Oklahoma (44.1); and Indiana (40.7).

The Bulls and Lakers were one and two, respectively, when it came to fan bases most interested in when their teams return to action, but Illinois and California came in at 28th and 11th, respectively. This is likely due to those fan bases being stretched across the entire nation.

And while the Indiana Pacers came in dead last in our first analysis, the state of Indiana came in 5th for interest of when the NBA returns.

If and when play resumes, we can likely expect high ratings — especially when the playoffs begin. What will be most interesting, though, is what the game looks and feels like without fans in the stands. Crowd noise won’t be a factor. There won’t be a home-court advantage. No question, the broadcast and the game will feel different.

But with no sports in the past few months, we don’t think the fans will mind too much at all.

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